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Cable Tech

Massachusetts lawmakers blast Comcast's data cap

A group of Massachusetts legislators is urging Comcast to pull back the extension of usage-based residential broadband data policies in the northeastern US, arguing in part that they consider such a move a "perversion" of network neutrality principles.

"We strongly urge Comcast to discontinue this plan, and to reconsider any future attempts at imposing a data cap or any perversion of the principles of net neutrality in Massachusetts," the 12 legislators wrote in a letter dated December 30, 2020, to Mark Reilly, SVP of government and regulatory relations for Comcast's Northeast Division.

One of the letter signatories, Rep. Andy Vargas, tweeted the contents of the letter the following day:

Comcast has been asked for comment on the letter from Massachusetts lawmakers.

Update: Comcast contends that its data policy provides plenty of headroom for the vast majority of its broadband customers while still providing unlimited data options for "superusers."

"1.2 terabytes is a massive amount of data that enables consumers to video conference for 3,500 hours, watch 1,200 hours of distance learning videos, stream 500 hours of high-definition video content a month, or play more than 34,000 hours of online games," a Comcast official said in a statement. "Our data plan is structured in a way that the very small percentage of our customers who use more than 1.2 terabytes of monthly data and generate the greatest demand for network development and capacity pay more for their increased usage. For those superusers, we have unlimited data options available."

Pressure from those Massachusetts lawmakers surfaces a little over a month after Comcast confirmed that it would activate its usage-based residential broadband data policy in its northeast region on January 1, 2021. The extension of the policy in the northeast division effectively provides Comcast with uniform national coverage, matching it up with policies that have long been in place in the cable operator's central and west divisions.

Comcast's northeast region covers portions of Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Hampshire, Maine, New Jersey, North Carolina, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Vermont, West Virginia and Washington, DC. Notably, that region includes several markets where Comcast competes with Verizon's uncapped Fios Internet service.

Following a multi-month suspension of its usage-based policy during the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, Comcast restored and updated its data policies in July 2020, raising the monthly limit to 1.2 TB – 200 gigabytes more than the 1TB limit in place prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Under the terms of the current plan, residential broadband customers who exceed 1.2TB of data per month are charged $10 for each additional bucket of 50 gigabytes, up to a maximum of $100 per month (Comcast's maximum data overage charge prior to the pandemic was $200).

Comcast's standalone unlimited data option costs an additional $30 per month (Comcast sold its unlimited option for an additional $50 prior to the pandemic). Comcast residential broadband customers in the northeast who sign up for unlimited data or "xFi Complete" (a package that combines unlimited data with the operator's xFi Gateway, an xFi Pod Wi-Fi extender, if necessary, and cybersecurity services for an additional $25 per month) are eligible for a special offer of free unlimited data through June 2021.

Comcast has taken measures to help ease the transition to the new policy in its northeast division. For starters, Comcast will essentially offer a two-month grace period, as it will credit back any charges associated with data overages or unlimited data for January and February 2021. Additionally, customers on Comcast's data plan get one courtesy month during every 12-month period, so it's possible that some customers in Comcast's northeast division could get a reprieve from any financial impact of the new data policy until April 2021.

Broadband data usage still soaring

Although Comcast contends that 95% of broadband customers across its base use less than 1.2TB of data per month, with median usage at about 308 gigabytes per month at last check, the Massachusetts lawmakers note that the number of customers exceeding those data limits is on the rise.

"In 2016, Comcast itself estimated that just 1 percent of customers used 1 terabyte of data or more a month. However, recent statements by Comcast indicate that five times as many customers are now exceeding its planned 1.2 terabyte threshold," they wrote. "Ongoing studies also show a growing number of consumers are exceeding these arbitrary caps, forcing them to pay unjustified overlimit fees or subscribe to a costly unlimited plan for as much as $30 more a month."

They also cited a recent study from OpenVault showing that consumer data consumption levels have surged during a pandemic that has forced millions of people to work and school from home. According to OpenVault, the percentage of "power" broadband users – defined as those who consume at least 1TB of data per month – jumped 110%, to 8.8% of all subscribers, in Q3 2020.

The same OpenVault study, based on anonymized data from multiple ISPs, also found a 172% rise in power users who consumed 2TB or more, to 1% of all broadband subs. Additionally, ISPs with usage-based plans had about 25% more customers on 1-Gig speed tiers than operators with flat-rate billing plans during Q3 2020, OpenVault found.

The NCTA's COVID-19 Dashboard, which tabulates data from Comcast and other large and midsized US cable operators, shows that national downstream data peak growth has risen 30% since March 2020. Meanwhile, upstream peak growth has climbed 51.2% during that same timeframe.

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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